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Tell Us A Story! What's A Story?

The night was dark and stormy. We were seated by the fire. The captain rose and said, “Alphonso, tell us a story,”

Alphonso rose, and said, “The night was dark and stormy. The captain rose and said, Alphonso, tell us a story. Alphonso rose and said . . .”

My grandfather told this to my sister and me when we were little kids. We thought it was hilarious. Actually, I still think it’s funny. Haven’t we read or listened to stories that promised to go somewhere and somewhere got up and left? The captain and Alphonso shtick may strike you as humorous, exasperating, dumb or pointless, but it is not a story.

“Come on, Alphonso! Stand and deliver! Tell us a story, for Pete’s sake.” I imagine Alphonso turning to us and asking, “OK, but what is a story?” “Oh, come off it, Alph. Everyone knows what a story is.”

No, everyone does not know what a story is or how it works and why it works. Have you ever burned the potatoes because you couldn’t stop reading a story? Been late for an important lunch meeting with a client because you could not put down the mystery novel? What is this hold that stories have on us? On everybody? Yes, everybody.

Ursula K, Leguin, who was one of the masters of the art and science of story writing, said famously “There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”

Stories that teach the young how to bring down a bison or a tiger with a spear without being killed; stories that teach the method of weaving a basket so it doesn’t leak. Stories about how the world began, feats of courage, honesty, cowardice, in short, stories that deal with all aspects of living, but especially how to survive: a bad relationship; a firefight in the jungle or desert or urban neighborhood; a problem or situation so difficult there seems to be no answer, no way out. Wait: even the children’s books Scuffy the Tugboat, for instance, or The Little Engine that Could? Yes, especially children’s books.

When I was a boy and watched a John Wayne cowboy film, I played his role with my trusty cap gun before my bedroom mirror for a day or so after. I felt the danger he encountered, I watched how he handled bullies and other bad guys, and stuck that away somewhere in my brain against that awful day when Wally the neighborhood bully confronted me on my way home from school.

When we read a good story, we feel what the protagonist is up against. We want him or her to overcome the external and internal problems the story presents because we face difficult situations in our lives. Stories help us to plan for that person or situation that scares us nearly to death, things unknown, unexpected. We get to try out complicated, hard to comprehend experiences we haven’t yet come up against to get a feel for what it would be like and what we would need to figure out in order to survive.

A story can entertain, and many stories do. But that’s not a story’s purpose. A story tells how things happen that change or influence a character who must accomplish a seemingly insurmountable task, orovercome a really big problem. A story also shows how that character changes during that adventure.

Take for example, the classic myth (story!), Jason and the Golden Fleece (a.k.a. Jason and the Toronto Argonauts, with apologies to Jean and Ron, our Canadian friends).

Pelias, the dirty rotten skunk, murders Jason’s father the king. After Jason saves Pelias whom he fails to recognize, Pelias encourages Jason to begin a quest in search of the coveted Golden Fleece. Pelias hopes Jason will be killed fighting a multitude of dangerous enemies to thwart the prophecy that Jason will reclaim the throne.

If Jason hadn’t been protected by an All-Star team of gods and goddesses Pelias’s scheme would have succeeded. After he completes three impossible tasks, Jason gets Fleeced. That is,, he gets the Fleece. Along the way, Jason learns humility and a respect for the gods.

What if the story went something like this: During Jason’s preparations for the quest, his squire inquires as to the meaning of all this hustle and bustle. Jason tells him he’s going to some far-off city called Colchis to bring home the coveted Golden Fleece. The squire says, “Hold your horses. That piece of yellow-y sheepskin is in a drawer upstairs in the attic.” In five minutes he hands Jason the Golden Fleece. “Gee, thanks,” says Jason. “No problem,” the squire replies.

No problem. No story. That’s what we’re talking about.

Thanks to those who have purchased the paperback version of Pack of Scoundrels on Amazon. May I humbly suggest that if you liked the story, that you please tell your friends about it? Thank you very much!

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